Sunday, May 20, 2018
Politics

Mariano: Computer building is no 'Taj Mahal'

In the world of political attack ads, old newspaper stories never die. They simply fade into the archives before being resurrected days before an election in a hard-hitting flier sent to voters' homes.

Such is the case with a planned information technology center in Dade City that now is the subject of an attack on Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano.

The mailer from a Tallahassee political committee recycles a line from retired Sheriff Bob White, who dubbed the building a "computer palace" in October 2010 as he was locked in a budget battle with commissioners.

"Tired of politicians who spend millions on extravagant buildings?" the mailer reads. "First, we had the Taj Mahal courthouse in Tallahassee. Now, Commissioner Jack Mariano wants a Taj Mahal computer palace in Pasco County."

An angry Mariano called it absurd to compare the IT building with the Tallahassee courthouse.

"There's no granite countertops, no fountains, no paintings," he said. "It'll be a bare-bones shell, very minimally done."

The Taj Mahal refers to the new 1st District Court of Appeal courthouse in Tallahassee. Critics said the building cost millions more than was required because it was outfitted with 60-inch television screens, granite countertops, miles of mahogany trim and bathrooms and kitchens for every judge.

A bond issue to pay for the courthouse was tucked inside a transportation bill approved the last day of the 2007 legislative session. The public furor eventually sparked the resignation of former Chief Judge Paul M. Hawkes.

County Administrator John Gallagher described the proposed IT building as such: "It's a normal Pasco County government building. All you've got to do is visit any building I've built. If you think they're fancy, give me a call. We keep them as plain as we can."

Mariano also took issue with the flier's claim that "commissioners are trying to cut firefighters, cut law enforcement and increase our taxes."

Commissioners voted to add nine firefighter positions in next year's budget. The Sheriff's Office added 23 positions last year. Commissioners have endorsed a higher property tax rate that is designed to collect roughly the same amount of taxes as the current year because of a drop in property values.

Former Sheriff White is supporting Mariano's opponent, New Port Richey minister Bill Gunter. Several political committees associated with state lawmakers — including Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey and Rep. Richard Corcoran of Trinity — have given to Gunter's campaign.

The mailer is from a group called Nature Coast Conservatives. In the final week of July, that group took a combined $65,000 from the Committee to Protect Florida, which is associated with political consultant Rockie Pennington. That committee is used by several legislators for direct mail, including Corcoran and Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater.

The mailer comes from "Sheriff White and the minions," Mariano said. "You know where all the political connections are."

Gunter did not return calls for comment Thursday on his thoughts on the proposed IT building or the mailer.

Gunter, who is endorsed by Pasco's three main public safety unions, received a $150 contribution from Jeremiah Hawkes, a top administrator in the Sheriff's Office. Gunter also received $250 from Hawkes' father, the former judge associated with the appeals courthouse in Tallahassee.

The county's current IT building was constructed in 1977, and has recently had several repairs. It houses all of the county's key computing equipment, which have become more important as the county relies on technology. During a storm, workers are required to leave the building when wind speeds reach 45 mph.

The new building would be hardened in case of a storm. It also will have space for a backup 911 center to replace a cramped location at the county jail in Land O'Lakes.

"By no means is it an exorbitant space," said recently retired budget chief Mike Nurrenbrock.

The county's capital improvement budget includes $11.5 million in capital improvement and bond money to pay for the building. The project's total cost is listed at $12.2 million. Officials soon will put out a bid for the construction work, and Nurrenbrock said he hopes low construction prices can drive down the project's cost even more.

Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.

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